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Have social networks replaced groups?

Maxim Weinstein responded in an email to my post about what the social structure of the Internet looked like before Facebook, making the insightful point that Facebook meets the four criteria Clay Shirky listed for social software in his 2003 keynote at eTech. Here are the four with Max’s comments appended:

1. Provide for persistent identities so that reputations can accrue. These identities can of course be pseudonyms.
2. Provide a way for members’ good work to be recognized. < "Like" buttons, sharing
3. Put in some barriers to participation so that the interactions become high-value. < have to accept friend requests
4. As the site’s scale increases, enable forking, clustering, useful fragmentation. < pages

Max goes on to note some nuances. But his comment, plus a discussion yesterday with Andrew Preater, a library technologist at the Imperial College of London, made me think how little progress we’ve in fact made in supporting groups on the Net.

For example, Clay’s post from 2003 marvels at a “broadband conversation” in which the participants communicated simultaneously by conference call, through a wiki, and through a chat, each from a different source. Since 2003, there are now services that bundle together these different modalities: Skype and Google Hangouts both let a group talk, video, chat, and share documents. (Google Docs are functionally wikis, except without the draft>compile>post process.) So, that’s progress…although there is always a loss when disparate services get tightly bundled.

What’s missing is the concept of a group. As my 2003 post said, members of a group know they’re members of a group with some persistence. Skype and Hangouts let people get together, but there are no tools there for enabling that configuration of people to persist beyond the session. Groups are important because they enable social ties to thicken, which means they’re especially useful now to mitigate the Brownian motion of sociality on the Internet.

Likewise, Facebook, Google Groups, Twitter, and the other dominant forms of “social software” (to use the term from 2003) are amazing at building social networks. At those sites you can jump into borderless networks, connecting to everyone else by some degree. That’s pretty awesome. But those sites do not have a much of a concept of a group. A group requires some form of membership, which entails some form of non-membership. Usually the membership process and the walls that that process forms are visible and explicit. This isn’t to say that groups have to have a selection committee and charge dues. A group can be widely open. But the members need to be able to say “Yeah, I’m part of that group,” even if that means only “I regularly participate in that open discussion over there.” A group is a real thing, more than the enumeration of its members. If all the members leave, we have to be able to say, “There’s no one in that group any more. Too bad.”

If the walls around the group don’t include and exclude the same people for each member, then it’s a network, not a group. Not all of your friends are my friends and vice versa. But everyone in the Chess Club is in the Chess Club. The Chess Club is a group. Your friends and my friends on Facebook are part of a social network. Not that’s there anything wrong with that.

Now, I realize in saying this I am merely expressing my Old Fartdom. “Why, in my day, there were groups and not all these little networks of people with their twittering and their facial books.” The evidence for this is the generational divide on email. Email remains my most important social software for all the reasons that The Kids have moved to Facebook: email goes to the people I choose, is slower, results in semantically sequential threads of call-and-response, and is archived. But I especially like email because mailing lists are crucial to my social and intellectual life. I have been on some for over twenty years. Most of what I know about the Internet comes from the lists I’m on. I’ve reconnected with some of my academic philosophical roots via a mailing list. Mailing lists are so important to me because they are online groups.

So it’s entirely possible, in fact it’s probable, that the Internet has not made a lot of progress supporting groups because our culture no longer values groups. We’ve gone from Bowling Alone to Twitch Bowls 300. Old-timers like me — even as we celebrate the rise of networks — should be permitted a tear to dampen our dry, furrowed skin.

5 Responses to “Have social networks replaced groups?”

  1. David, a few thoughts.

    I’m not sure that “our culture no longer values groups”; rather I think they are now not the only tools available to us, and we are consequently redefining what a group is. I’m organizing a meet up in DC in a couple of weeks with local friends (many of whom I’ve only “met” online) and moving from invites on social media networks towards a smaller group of people who either will or will not attend. The “group” that meets on September 7 is hardly likely to ever meet again with the exact same constituents, but it will be a group while it’s together. And maybe, some of the relationships formed there will turn out to be long lasting, resulting in longer-term group formation.

    Perhaps it is the transitory nature of today’s kinds of groups you are mourning. Traditionally, membership also was paired with commitment. You paid for your annual membership so you’d get the desired bench in the synagogue, you attended your league games so you didn’t let down the team, etc. With the ease of forming groups these days around any common interest, we are trading the long-term commitment and perhaps a more comfortable social milieu for the expanded possibilities of making connections in ways we never could before. As someone who lives in a town with 800 people in 40 square miles, I value these new ways that allow me to meet and connect online around specific interests and then make arrangements to meet many of my online community folks face-to-face when I visit a city where they live.

    In the association world, “memberless” associations are a growing phenomenon. I run two of them myself, one of which, while remaining very active, has not used the concept of a “member” for 23 years. But the old fart definition of a group still allowed some fluidity. People joined and left the Chess Club and they subscribed and unsubscribed from mailing lists and listservs too. Still do. On balance, I like my new options, and I wonder if the “old groups” are less monolithic now only because they set up barriers to leaving that kept people inside and there were so many fewer attractive relevant alternatives than there are now.

  2. I don’t think we disagree much. But if I wanted to quibble, I’d say that the evidence that “our culture no longer values groups” is that the software to support groups has pretty much stalled. And, yes, I am indeed mourning the apparent loss (or downplaying) of groups that are more than fleeting, since the thickening of ties, which is one of the benefits of groups, comes from repeated interactions. Also, the persistence of a group over time adds a reliability or robustness to aspects of one’s social life.

    To be clear: I’m all for online social networks. They are making possible forms of sociality that simple did not exist before. I am sorry to see groups (as I define them) in decline.

  3. I’m not convinced that the “old fart” concept of a group is completely lost with today’s tools. Facebook enables groups with limited membership; I’m in one for my high school alumni class, for example. So, too, do tools like Google Groups and Ning. And, indeed, one could argue that these services have evolved from the listserv or the Usenet newsgroup to enable richer forms of interaction: photo sharing, cultivation of group databases, real-time chat (yes, I know we had that with IRC), and so on.

    All that said, Adrian does a good job theorizing on why there seems to be less cultural interest today in these types of groups. And that, in turn, may explain why the tools available seem to get less attention, and apparently have evolved less, than those for broader social networking.

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